Cambridge Analytica: scapegoats, strip clubs and stalking
The former lead psychologist at Cambridge Analytica tells Mediatel about the culture of working at the scandal-ridden firm, why he believes it was a scapegoat, and how our brains just don't care enough about data privacy. By Michaela Jefferson
According to the former lead psychologist at Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis and political consulting firm was used as a scapegoat for larger industry and government objectives during its infamous scandal earlier this year.
Cambridge Analytica was forced to close last month, standing accused of improperly harvesting the personal Facebook data of 50 million Americans and around a million Britons on behalf of political clients.
However, speaking at this year’s London Tech Week, Patrick Fagan said he did not believe the data scandal was about ethics because "everyone is doing it", continuing the company line that Cambridge Analytica only used legal data practices already widely in use.
Fagan specifically called out The Guardian and Channel 4, who broke the story; firstly, for using trackers on their websites and, secondly, for advertising job descriptions on LinkedIn searching for senior research executives to look at audience insights.
Fagan also claimed that Obama's 2012 presidential campaign was just as guilty of the sins Cambridge Analytica allegedly committed in favour of Trump's 2016 campaign. According to Fagan, Obama's campaign also used Facebook data, including the data of Facebook friends who hadn't opted in, and used it to send targeted political messages.
Speaking to Mediatel, Fagan was clear that he did not think consumer concerns were unfounded. However, he maintained that Cambridge Analytica was not the worst culprit, but rather the easiest target.
“I think we were used as a scapegoat for certain objectives that the government already had. Maybe it was to drive GDPR. Maybe it’s to put more control, restriction and regulation on the information and data available online," he said.
“Amazon has been doing stuff like this for years, but because consumers are now so upset about it, Cambridge is politically a useful scapegoat.”
Cambridge Analytica: the strip club
In the words of Cambridge Analytica’s ex-CEO, Alexander Nix, “[in politics] things don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they’re believed.”
According to Fagan, it was what was believed to be true about Cambridge Analytica that was its undoing.
Cambridge Analytica is like a strip club – everyone wants to go but nobody wants to be seen there."
Advising marketers at London Tech Week during a Tug Life session, he said: “The way that you’re perceived to be using data science or doing marketing is probably more important than what you’re actually doing.”
Cambridge Analytica’s business was booming before the scandal broke, he continued, with a “huge pipeline” of clients.
Yet, in his first week at the company, he overheard the following statement:
“Cambridge Analytica is like a strip club – everyone wants to go but nobody wants to be seen there.”
For Fagan, that “drove home” how important perceptions are in marketing. Clients were keen to work with the firm, but didn't want to be seen doing so. That, he says, was before the scandal broke.
“The point being, lots of companies used us and get value in it. So in terms of data science and AI - everyone’s doing it, it’s big business, we can’t really go backwards.”
These won't be welcome words in adland, which has tried to distance itself from Cambridge Analytica and the negative public perception its data useage has provoked.
The IPA, speaking to Mediatel in April, said that although everyone might be doing "it" (micro-targeting ads using data), it's the motivation that counts. Micro-targeted political advertising is where the line must be drawn, according to the trade body.
"Politics relies on the public square - on open, collective debate," said IPA president Sarah Golding. "We, however, believe micro-targeted political ads circumvent this."
Golding added that "there's nothing wrong with using data to micro-target advertising," noting that regular ads are already covered by the strict ASA self-regulatory codes.
However, in the absence of regulation the IPA believes an "almost hidden form of political communication" is vulnerable to abuse, leading the body to call for an end to what it calls "unaccountable", "opaque" and "ephemeral" micro-targeted political ads.
People care less about data privacy than you think they do
From a cognitive perspective, humans don't have the conscious brain power to pay attention to multiple things.
The limited brain power we do use, Fagan said, is used for a small cache of things which tend to be emotional and sociable - rational concerns are, by and large, left by the wayside.
“When choosing between the rational idea of data privacy or, on the other hand, being able to talk to my friends on Facebook, you can see the emotional [side] will win out – that’s if you even think about it at all.”
It's true that Facebook suffered little from the Cambridge Analytica scandal when it comes to the company's user base. The social media platform’s daily active users has continued to grow throughout the first quarter of 2018, in spite of the online #DeleteFacebook campaign, negative news coverage and political pressure.
“Consumers don’t really seem to care [about data privacy] as much as we think they do, because it’s just too rational a concern”, Fagan added.
When it comes to data, it’s the "creepiness factor" that fires up the emotional side of the brain. Consumers don’t like to be stalked and manipulated; they need to feel as though they have autonomy. It's for this reason that the Cambridge Analytica exposé has had such an impact on our collective consciousness, he said.
With this in mind, when speaking to Mediatel Fagan predicted that within a couple of years, data privacy concerns will be old news.
“I imagine there will be something else," he said.
"Biometrics – the new iPhone can measure your facial expressions, so I imagine people will get upset about that. But I don’t think you can stop progress.”
Don’t do politics
What final word of experienced advice did Cambridge Analytica's lead psychologist have for brands and agencies?
“Just don’t get involved in politics.”